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The Poet Laureate Visits Sweet Briar

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Yesterday the U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, visited campus. You can read coverage of the public events here and here; both the afternoon discussion and evening reading were inspiring, engaging, and meaningful to students —  those who are writers themselves and those who are “merely” readers and lovers of poetry.

But here’s part of the story you won’t read about in the press. Before the reading, the dinner table at Sweet Briar House was surrounded by Trethewey, student writers, poet/professor John Casteen, and me. As president, one of the privileges I most enjoy is bringing students together with distinguished visitors and faculty mentors in that lovely home. Sometimes it takes my breath away when I realize that yes, these students really are eating dinner with the Poet Laureate and discussing complex and sophisticated matters. It was a treat to hear the conversation:

Is there any ground to the stereotype that artistic ability is inherently associated with mental illness, addiction, and social eccentricity? (One of the students offered a very astute comment, pointing out that creative thinking is essential in many fields and not just in the arts — yet we do not have the same romantic stereotype about, say, economists. Good point!) Trethewey with JGB

Might a poet whose reputation has been built on social media and digital publishing be named as poet laureate anytime soon? (The consensus was no, probably not.) Why have so few poet laureates been young? (This led to an interesting set of reflections on the difference between early and late career work.) Why do many women who write poetry as undergraduates choose not to pursue graduate school or fellowships? (We were a little bit stumped.)

Why do so many people think that art that is popular is by definition of lesser quality than work that nobody actually reads for pleasure? (Again, a little stumped: isn’t the point of writing poetry for the poems to be read?)

Ashley Tucker '15, whose parents drove from Ohio to join her at the reading, with Trethewey

Ashley Tucker ’15, whose parents drove from Ohio to hear her introduce Trethewey


One of the students who attended had this to say this morning on Facebook:

“Best day ever. I am so blessed to have been able to have dinner with the United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey this evening at President Parker’s house.”

She’s right. It was a pretty great day.

Happy New Year!

Monarch with Mountain

Gorgeous Early Summer Day In The Blue Ridge

My guess is if you read this blog you’ve already seen our year-end video greeting, but in case you haven’t click here to share a few scenes from the past year. It’s all there: the classroom discussions, research presentations, athletic feats, quiet study, clubs and traditions, faculty engagement, outdoorsmanship, and a whole lot of fun — in short, all the ingredients of the Sweet Briar experience.

Three Students After Convocation

Three Students After Convocation

As we say goodbye to 2013, it seems like a good moment to share a few images from the past year with the students, faculty, staff, friends and supporters who made it all possible. Fortunately, 2014 will be full of more of the same — student achievement, challenging study, faculty mentorship, friendship — and probably a few surprises to boot!

Whether you’re a student or a parent, a member of the faculty or staff, a friend, neighbor or donor, thank you for everything you do to make each year at Sweet Briar great. And best to you and yours for 2014!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!

Lively Competition at Briar Bowl!

Doing Science at SBC

Bio presentation 1This week biology seniors presented the research they’ve been doing. So many of them are doing independent research that it took two whole evenings for them all to present! (I was able to attend the first evening — and I apologize to those whose presentations I was unable to hear.)

Here are some of the titles of their projects — and don’t ask me to explain what they all mean:

  • Rates of Borrelia in Ixodidae Ticks in Amherst County (worryingly high, if you’re like me and love to take long walks in the woods.)
  • Responses of Nematodes, Mites, and Springtails to the Pesticide Fipronil
  • Effects of Floral Symmetry on Reproductive Success in Lobelia siphilitica
  • Breast Cancer Cell Line MDA-MB-231: Treatment with Anti-Cancer Furanone Compounds
  • Sweet Briar Soil Carbon (a study of historical levels of carbon sequestration, partly supported by a grant from the Tusculum Institute.)

And there were of course many others.

The opportunity to do actual, individual, scholarly research of this kind, under the direction of senior faculty members, is one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar’s academic program. It’s one thing to learn science: it’s another thing entirely to do science, and these students are doing it. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a small campus, where access to faculty, equipment, and resources is open to all.

The audience arriving

The audience arriving

And many of these students were doing science by making use of the richness of our campus environment — dissecting ticks collected on campus, studying the visitation of pollinators to plants growing on campus, analyzing the chemistry of campus soil to learn about past conditions. We’re surrounded by 3,250 acres that our biologists use as a living lab.

Finally, of course, the faculty is very wise to incorporate public presentation into these research projects. Having done important research work, Sweet Briar students are expected to be able to organize and deliver a presentation that will clearly explain its meaning to an audience of both experts and non-experts. Whatever these students go on to do, this is a valuable and too-often-overlooked aspect of success.

Attending these presentations was one of those wonderful occasions that pretty much summarized what a Sweet Briar education is all about. Makes me want to be a student again, at a place like this. . .

Let’s see. . .

This has been one of those weeks that makes it very hard to choose a topic to post about! Let’s see: should I tell you about Molly Haskell’s visit to campus and lecture? After all, she’s one of our most distinguished alumnae and her new book is being very well reviewed . . . or perhaps an update on issues discussed at this fall’s Board meeting? But then my community update is posted here, if you’d care to read it. Or perhaps something about the meeting I just attended with government representatives such as Martha Kanter and Gene Sperling to discuss President Obama’s proposals for higher education? (Whatever your political leanings, I hope you’re following the discussion of these proposals: their implications are potentially very challenging for institutions like Sweet Briar and friends of higher education should be paying close attention.) Or maybe you’d like to hear about what fun it was to welcome nearly 50 families to campus on a gorgeous weekend for an Open House for prospective students?

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

A screen shot from Virtual Tusculum

Instead, though, I think I’ll point you to two  clever videos that have just been created by Sweet Briar’s Tusculum Institute. “Virtual” tours of Tusculum have just been posted on line: I really do encourage you to take a look. In these two short videos you can get a dynamic sense of what the family home of Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother looked like. The digital images are interspersed with historical photographs that add color and dimension to the presentation. These videos are a great example of how technology can allow us to understand space and place in new ways; watching them, you really feel as though you’re moving through this historic building.

Several years ago, as many readers will recall, Sweet Briar acquired the Tusculum house and had it carefully dismantled, inventoried, and moved to campus for safe storage.

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Tusculum in a photograph from the 1960s

Our initial hope was to be able to secure funding to reconstruct it on campus. However, that did not prove to be feasible: we are now making the house available to any qualified organization or individual willing and able to reconstruct it in a historically sensitive manner. Proposals are currently being accepted and the call for proposals is available on line.

Sweet Briar takes its stewardship for this piece of history very seriously. Having preserved the elements of the building, repaired and restored them appropriately, and carefully organized and protected them in storage has been a valuable achievement. But we know that long-term storage is not good stewardship: Tusculum deserves to be reconstructed and used, to come back to life.

Until that happens, however, what fun it is to watch these videos and imagine it!


Health, Wellness, Community

Setting Up in Prothro

Setting Up in Prothro

This week the annual community Health Fair took place in Prothro. Employees, spouses, and campus residents could explore local resources and pick up lots of information — as well as have their eyes checked and get a free flu shot or grab a quick chair massage!

As a nation, we (rightly) worry deeply about the increasing costs of health care and how to provide access to first-rate care as broadly as possible. Those issues are complex, requiring thoughtful and careful work at the public policy level.

Rick Visits with a Local Chiropractor

Rick Visits with a Local Chiropractor

At a more local and immediate level, one piece of the health care puzzle that we can each do something about is helping neighbors, co-workers, relatives and friends discover ways that they can improve personal health by making small, consistent choices. There’s no question that getting regular check-ups, making healthier food choices, exercising moderately, curbing tobacco and alcohol use, managing stress, and maintaining strong relationships can reduce the risks associated with heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other serious illnesses. And that people simply feel better when they do these things. . .

Members of the Lions Club provide eye screenings

Members of the Lions Club provide eye screenings

As president, each year I encourage each of the vice-presidents and deans to choose one small thing they can do to make a small wellness improvement — park at a distance from Fletcher in order to walk a few more steps each day, cut out one dessert each week, try a new sport, set aside half an hour a week to catch up with old friends by phone or email. And then I encourage them to do the same with the people who report directly to them. After all, we teach Sweet Briar students that wellness and health are an important component of successful adult life: shouldn’t we practice what we preach?



Pizza with New Students!

students house evening

We’re nearly at the end of this year’s Pizza with Parker parties, occasions on which I get to sit with new students, find out how things are going, and welcome them to Sweet Briar House with a tour. And, of course, eat pizza!

Coco joins in greeting students

Coco joins in greeting students

We talk about a number of things — their favorite (and sometimes least-favorite) courses so far, what has surprised them about their first few weeks in college, whether they miss their dogs or siblings or mother’s cooking, what they tell their friends at other schools about what it’s like at Sweet Briar, what they’re most looking forward to in coming weeks. . .

And each year they consider a specific question. This year, I asked what they value most about being here, on this campus, among these friends, taking these courses. It was a very intentional question. Media and public discussions obsessively question the “value” of higher education — as career preparation, in relation to tuition prices and student debt, as a priority for public funds. I thought it would be interesting to hear directly from students who have just made the choice to enroll what they value about the choice they made.

Here are some of the things they said:

“The opportunities to meet new people, challenge myself academically, and pursue career internships.”

“I value how the Honor Code is outlined and obeyed.”

“Being a person and not a number in the classroom! And being in a place where everything is centered around women and women first!”

“It is a huge thing for me because I have wanted to be here for six years.”

And of course, many specific programs and courses were mentioned — engineering, riding, music, pre-vet, creative writing, and many others. But above all, the theme that emerged was community, friendship, the welcoming and accepting nature of the campus, the investment that is made in every young woman who enrolls.

I generally end these evenings by offering those students who are interested a tour of the House. As they begin their Sweet Briar careers, learning a bit about the history of the place and the people who have so loved it helps students place their personal experience in the context of a much larger sweep of time and space. This year, the concept of “value” was especially relevant; the example of a woman who so valued education that she left the whole of her property so that more than a century later these young women could be here is as humbling as it is inspiring.

Beginning the tour at the House

Beginning the tour at the House

Student examining a letter by Martha Penn Taylor

Examining a letter by Martha Penn Taylor

A Double-Win Saturday!

photoYesterday, on a perfectly crystalline afternoon, the Vixens won home games in both soccer and field hockey. Holla holla, Vixens!

The soccer team won its game against Christendom College 6 – 0, and the field hockey team won against Notre Dame (MD) 3 -1. As always, if you’re interested in more details about either contest you can find full reports on the Vixen Athletics web site. And, now, parents and grandparents and friends and former players and alumnae and anybody else who’s interested can watch Vixens games streaming live on-line! (You can even watch them on your iPhone while you’re actually standing at the field watching live, as I established yesterday.) If you can’t catch a game on-line live, you can also find videos on the Vixen Athletics YouTube channel so you can keep up with your favorite sport.

It’s always great to see our teams win, of course, but it’s greater by far to see them win by playing well.

Profs. John Morrissey and Kevin Honeycutt on the sidelines

Profs. John Morrissey and Kevin Honeycutt on the sidelines

Athletics is one of the most visible arenas in which students have an opportunity to develop — and to display — the essential quality Dean Amy called “grit” in her Convocation remarks. As she put it then,

“We want you, as young women going out into this world, to not just be confident, not just be articulate, not just be leaders, but to be women who have a strength of character that in the face of adversity knows how to be tenacious, knows how to stand strong and not give up when faced with a challenge.”

She then invited us to think about all the qualities “grit” could stand for: grace, resiliance, integrity, and tenacity in particular — but also such traits as generosity, resourcefulness, idealism, and thoughtfuness. She framed the ultimate value of an education in terms of the development of such qualities of both mind and character, essential as they are to success of every kind. Yesterday our Vixens showed us what grit looks like on the playing fields.

The view from Thayer Field during the hockey game

The view from Thayer Field during the hockey game



As you may or may not know, 17-year cicadas are out in force on campus. I’ve never experienced the emergence of periodical cicadas before! It’s something to see, and to hear. In some of the wooded areas on campus their sound is almost a roar.

At lunch Professor Linda Fink took some of us on a “cicada walk.” She’s been reading up on cicadas; in fact, researchers from other parts of the country have been visiting this area to study the current “brood” — ours is Brood II — and she preparing to welcome one visiting scientist to campus later this afternoon.

Here are a few things I learned:

The cicadas we’re seeing now, all of which emerged in the last couple of weeks, are actually from three different species of periodical cicadas; they’re just all synchronized to the same cycle.

Female cicadas etch small grooves into the surfaces of twigs, branches, and limbs in which to lay their eggs. Then, nymphs hatch from the eggs, drop to the ground, and burrow in. By drawing water and some minerals from roots, they remain alive underground for 17 years.

Male cicadas inhabit a defined area and “sing” in order to attract females.

Rick, Coco and Tazz came along

But every so often the males move on and set up in a new area. (Which I had wondered about, as the noise has certainly seemed to move around campus.) Professor Fink isn’t sure why they do this: she speculates that since females lay their eggs near the mating site, once an area has been sufficiently populated with eggs and nymphs the males move on to draw females to a new location.

Some dogs like to eat cicadas and others do not. Coco and Tazz do not.



A Matinee with Students

A nice lady took this picture of me and some students

Saturday Rick and I very much enjoyed attending a performance of Coriolanus in DC with Professor Tony Lilly and several students.

Prof. Lilly proudly wears his P&P ribbon

As regular readers of this blog know, Rick and I go to the theater as often as we can. In recent years, we thought we were detecting an upsurge of interest in Coriolanus (based on a very unscholarly review of our own experience!) We’ve seen RSC productions in both Ann Arbor and London, we’ve seen a production at the Stratford Festival, and of course last year there was a filmed version starring Ralph Fiennes. Now this excellent production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC. (I particularly liked the use of sound in this one, which featured drums and other percussion instruments.)

So I asked Professor Lilly and our students why they thought this particular play might have been of special interest in the last decade or so. Here are some of the ideas we batted around:

  • The play starts with hunger and food riots. Perhaps in a time of growing economic  inequality the question of how government should respond to movements like Occupy Wall Street seems especially relevant?
  • Coriolanus hates “celebrity culture.” That is, he resents having to expose himself in what he sees as pandering for public approval. Maybe we’re beginning to wonder whether our own obsession with celebrity in politics has gone too far?
  • We’ve had occasion to consider the relationship between military leadership and political leadership, arising from  experience in Afghanistan as well as from personal scandals. Maybe the play speaks to those issues?

Gathering in the lobby


At intermission, some of the students were connecting the play to their reading of the Federalist Papers and the concept of the “mask of zeal,” talking about which characters are wearing the mask of zeal and which are actually zealous and whether there’s a difference.

So, just another day on which I was reminded of what a privilege it is to be in higher education. Sitting in a theater, talking with young women about ideas like these. . . how lucky am I?

Joyful Noise

Students, Singing!

Sunday evening was the annual Gospel Fest, held in celebration of Black History Month.

Chaplain Dori Baker greets the crowd

I love this event, at which the Sweet Briar and local communities gather in the Chapel to share the kind of music that makes that lovely old building ring like a bell! We heard choirs of men and of women, family groups and soloists, performing spirituals and hymns.

AND, for the first time, Sweet Briar students welcomed our guests with a performance of their own. Our singers — 68 strong! — opened the evening with a spirited version of “Siyahamba,” accompanied by the Sweet Briar drum ensemble. (Did you know Sweet Briar has a drum ensemble, thanks to new music professor Jeff Jones?)

I’ll admit it, I’ve been humming that tune since Sunday night. . .

Opening our doors, sharing the vitality of the gospel tradition and the talents of our students and our neighbors: I can’t imagine a better way to end a weekend. Since I don’t have audio clips to share, I hope these pictures give you some sense of the energy and fun.